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Learning About Heart Valve Surgery

Heart valves

What is heart valve surgery?

Heart valve surgery fixes or replaces a damaged heart valve. There are four valves in your heart. They are the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonic valves. These valves open and close to keep blood flowing in the proper direction through your heart. When you have a problem with a heart valve, blood does not flow through the heart the right way.

During the surgery, the doctor may fix your heart valve or replace it with an artificial valve. The artificial valve may be made of plastic, metal, or animal tissue. Whether your heart valve is repaired or replaced depends on the type of heart valve problem you have.

How is heart valve surgery done?

The most common way to do heart valve surgery is through a large cut, called an incision, in the chest. This is called open-chest surgery. During open-chest surgery a heart-lung bypass machine is used to add oxygen to the blood and move the blood through the body. This machine will allow the doctor to stop your heartbeat while he or she works on your heart.

In some cases, other types of heart valve surgery may be an option. These include surgery that is done without stopping the heart and surgery that is done through smaller incisions in the chest.

What can you expect after heart valve surgery?

You may stay in the hospital for 3 to 8 days after surgery. You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.

You will probably need to take 4 to 12 weeks off from work. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.

After you recover, you will probably feel better than you did before you had the surgery. For example, you may no longer have shortness of breath and fatigue. But you may continue to have some heart problems.

Your doctor may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehab program. In cardiac rehab, a team of health professionals provides education and support to help you recover and prevent problems with your heart. Ask your doctor if rehab is right for you.

After surgery, you may need to take anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. Be sure to tell all your doctors and your dentist that you have had heart valve surgery. This is important, because you may need to take antibiotics before certain procedures to prevent infection.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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